Tuesday, 13 June 2017

"I’ve given my party a powerful magical item and now my campaign is ruined."

I’ve given my party a powerful magical item and now my campaign is ruined.

This is one of those complaints that I see all over Internet forums and on Podcasts and in blogs – that they’ve given too much agency to their players and their players are gleefully shitting on the setting you’ve carefully constructed.

Traditional advice ranges from a mature discussion about campaign expectations (what did that ever solve?) to magical theft abetted by DM fiat to restore the apparent balance of power. These are solutions that go against then spirit of the game in my view, and I would advise simply that you embrace it and build it as a seed for future adventures.

If they have time travel, cool, your campaign is some kind of murder-centric Quantum Leap. If they’re immortal, rad, so are a tonne of other people. If they’ve set themselves up as kings, being a kind is not fucking easy.  In a world where the potential power level of a being ranges from Goblin to Godhead, there will always be challenges. (Whether D&D remains the system of choice is debatable).

If it’s a single player-character resource (you gave the party Barbarian a really powerful magic sword and now he’s wrecking everything and overshadowing the other players) that can be more difficult, but there are challenges that a magic sword can’t fix that a barbarian won’t be much good at.

Here are three examples of grossly overpowered things my players ended up with with potential game-breaking consequences:

A fucking castle.

My party – The Company of the Noose – are movers and shakers. They have an island fortress named Soltenpet and their own Warship named Destiny’s Edge and they’re not even level 10. They are upwardly mobile socially aspirant murderers. This comes complete with feudal rights over some unlucky peons and a small army of their own to command.

Now, this could elevate them beyond the petty concerns of dungeoneering, but for two things:

1) They’re obsessed with upgrading their castle.
Now, normally my story-focussed group are a bit beyond lucre as a motivation (despite that being the standard assumption of the whole game) but they’re obsessed with a paranoid desire to make themselves unassailable my building siege engines and holes. They have struck a deal with pirates to launder their ill-gotten gains through their ports, and are going to expand their dock accordingly. They’re seeking an arcanist to repair magical artefacts they’ve recovered. This has created a whole host of castle-related quests hunting monsters and plundering tombs and politicking with pirate-kings – standard fare.

2) Baddies have castles too.
This should be self-explanatory.

A maguffin that makes them immortal.

The Company recovered The Hourglass of Ages, a device which allows you to siphon life from one person into another. Capture enough hobos and orphans and you can live free from the vicissitudes of time. This is obviously much desired by various morally dubious personages. If they got it into their heads to flog it, the Kings and Emperors of the world would offer a pretty hefty price. Technically, this is an enormously powerful artefact, but a basic moral principle prevents them auctioning it off, and player characters don’t die of old age, so they can’t use it personally.

A really powerful magic sword

 My players were given Voidwalker, an epically powerful sword which was pretty obviously bad news.

Greatsword * 2d6
The sword is a single hilt of bone. The blade is not visible. When held aloft in darkness, a series of glowing runes are visible on the blade. In Infernal, they read: THE GREATEST WARRIOR FIGHTS AS THOUGH ALREADY DEAD. 
 On a critical, Voidwalker works as Power Word Kill unless the target has over 80hp.
Stillness: Once per day, the wielder of Voidwalker may use his move action to make an additional attack with Voidwalker.
Brightest Candle, Longest Shadow:  If the wielder of Voidwalker hits 0 hit-points, they may instead choose to stay standing at 1hp and gain a random curse. 

Arcana (22) Voidwalker is cursed and will compel the owner to accept any offer of a duel as though under the Geas spell. 

A History (25) will reveal Voidwalker to have been the sword of Musashi, who founded the Dameshti Swordfighting college that offers the swan-pendant for excellence in combat. Musashi was gifted Voidwalker by a representative of Dispater after triumphing in 66 duels to the death. A great reward would be offered if it was returned to the College. 

Vaina Moynen, our barbarian-fighter and resident killing machine, rampaged across every combat encounter using this thing. The avalanche of half-Orc, Reckless Attack criticals would decimate mooks in most encounters, and the party felt grossly outmatched as he sliced through most boss fights too.

This bred a touch of resentment, until an end-of-story-arc boss used the curse to force a single duel (the player obviously felt I’d never use that) to slaughter Vaina. When there’s an obviously powerful weapon, I always accommodate choices (ie a one-off nova ability with a trade off) as these make the weapons complicated. When Vaina was duelling, the players weren’t quite rooting for him…

Monday, 12 June 2017

That Old Time Religion Part 2: Cults

 Fifth Edition D&D’s published adventures are as fixated on Cults as a seventies Evangelist. This is obvious; Cult is a word rich in visceral associations: a religion dominated by secrecy, and arcane mysteries, and an esoteric cosmology. Somehow dirtier and naughtier. The Church of England is a religion. The Nation of Islam is a cult.

As with many WOTC creations, the effort to be inoffensive and to fit the assumptions of a million potential worlds have led to an inert blandness. The core question of a cult is of course, why worship that? WOTC’s adventures see people worshipping Dragons or ‘Elemental Evil’ but there’s very little indication of what exactly predisposes someone to this school of thought. We explain it with the easy crutch of mental illness: people joined Heaven’s Gate because they were crazy.

But there’s more to that. Some people join Cults for reason of status, or to belong to an elite society with connections despite nebulous objectives, be they Scientologist or Freemason or Young Conservatives. Others join because their life is otherwise empty: studies show people in fringe religions tend to leap from faith to faith with heady abandon. Some people, I think, rise a little, and grow to love their secret power. Other people stay for the virgin sacrifice – it takes all kinds.

I’ve tried to drill this flavour into the major cult in my setting, The Cult of the Ouroboros.

The principal cult for my setting will become very prominent in the next few sessions as my players infiltrate it . They’ve had numerous run-ins (even in the antediluvian days when this campaign was a one shot called North Corner) and I think they’ve come to believe that the Cult is made up of mighty wizards and vampires and liches and whatnot. They’ll soon learn that every faith has its bootlickers, and that a huge proportion of the Cult are in it to network (To some degree, The Cult of the Ouroboros is the golf club of The Last Day Dawned). I wonder how they’ll treat these people.

The Cult operates in a completely opposed way to the worshippers of The Iron Tyrant: their game is conspiracy, and they lure the wealthy and powerful with promises of everlasting life. Accruing a backlog of favours, they wield power in secret. When the Company clash with the Cult, a multitude of proxies can be tapped to make trouble. Killing some Vampire in the wilderness is one thing – but its less easy to fight your way out of being arrested for treason because the Cult has the ear of a powerful Duke.

 They see blasphemy as a simple extension of their principle aim: to conquer death. If this means killing the gods and toppling their thrones, so be it. 

Here’s the setting document for the Cult:

The Cult of Ouroboros

The Cult of Ouroboros is a strange collection of mystics, academics, necromancers, hermits, vampires, undead, cultists, aberrations, monks and bodhisattvas, connected by a singular purpose: the path of perfect immortality.

The final aim of a Cultist is true immortality: a perfect circle where a being can subsist completely on their own energies for all time, represented by a serpent eating its own tail.
Lesser forms of immortality – such as vampirism – are seen as imperfect due to their dependence on of consuming blood, or souls, or other miscellanea, to feed their immorality.

The Cult possesses little formal organisation, or doctrinal orthodoxy, and is seen more as a Path than a religion. To that end, members of the cult often form relationships with or worship other deities or patrons. Additionally, whilst a standard world-view of the Cult would see no intrinsic value in another mortal’s life, and believe wholeheartedly that establishing immortality of the truly great is worth any sacrifice, there are subsections of the Cult who live more harmoniously. Their unifying principle: to move towards perfect immortality, and aids others in the Cult. Whilst it has no leaders, it has a number of spiritual leaders or gurus who are considered further on the journey than their compatriots. To protect the organisation, many share their secrets with nobles and ruling classes who cover their activities.

The most prolific enemies of the Cult are servitors of The Raven Queen; The Morrigan; Chooser of the Slain, or the crusading knights of The Order of the Resplendent Star. 

Known members:

Beautiful Lathander
An incredibly vain and impious wizard from the Dameshti Collegia Aracanum. He was researching true immortality and its link to the Titans who once gave battle to the gods in the vast catacombs beneath North Corner. Aligning himself with Orcus, he used shape-shifting fiends to infiltrate the town and hordes of undead and a mercenary company known as The Red Tide to claim the catacombs for himself. Due to the actions of The Heroes of North Corner, his dominion of the catacombs was ended and he was vanquished at great cost to the town.

Nicodemus, The-Worm-That-Walks.
A vampire who had once aligned with factions among Loquista’s noble families and whose conspiracy had made him and his organisation the shadow government of the city-state: feeding as they pleased. He would eventually be overthrown by the actions of Teshei, a Rakshasa adventurer working with a company known as The Wandering Wolves. Teshei would soon exploit the power-vaccuum and wave of proscriptions and purges to place himself in control of the city, leaving the lingering matter of Nicodemus to reform in the sewers as a hideous Worm-That-Walks. Whilst he conspired with the Resistance and The Company of the Noose to gain vengeance against Teshei and his brood, he would be betrayed by The Company of the Noose and vanquished in the sewers, unmourned.

Arch Magi and Dean of the Loquistan College of magic, the esoteric occultist Cerelesta took little part in the day-to-day governance of the city despite her position in the Council of Ten and her relationship to the Despot Teshei. She conspired with the Company of the Noose to claim The Hourglass of Ages, but they later chose to assassinate her to precipitate civil war. Her connection to the wider cult is unknown.

Valakashanya, The First Vampire, Queen Under The Mountain.
The Company vanquished this foe on the rocky precipice of The Bleeding Mountain after adventuring to the heart of Zunia to cut her down. Delving into her lair, they saw only sad reminders of Valakshanya’s descent into madness as the millennia lay heavier and heavier on her brow.  Feral and mindless, no one will lament this last gasp of the antiquity of Damesht.

Ashoka, The Undying Monk.
About this foe, the Company know nothing.

Numines, The Broken Druid.
About this foe, the Company know nothing.

Koscheibog, Deathless Terror.
About this foe, the Company know nothing.

The Champion of Nerull

About this foe, the Company know nothing unless they metagame Phil.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

A Cosmology for The Last Day Dawned: Part 1: The Infant Demiurge

I have mixed feelings about cosmology in games. Most of the time, I think its irrelevant (your world was birthed from the skull of the dragon that ate the last universe? Pretty cool, but will it ever be relevant in a game session?) and a little self-indulgent. It is useful, I think, for establishing the tone of a setting. I also prefer that there be essentially conflicting verdicts in the world about how, why, and by whom the world was created.

Here is one such verdict.

The Infant Demiurge

For infinite kalpas, there was only Void and The Infant Demiurge. Both infinite. Demiurge dreamed of every dream that can be conceived, and was content with the majesty of this purpose. Void continued, unthinking, wrapping Demiurge like a blanket.

When Demiurge had dreamed every dream that could be conceived, he was dissatisfied.  Demiurge looked around Void, and her brow furrowed and her feet stamped and she struck at Void in a most unbecoming display. Demiurge howled and roared at empty Void; and was greeted with silence untainted by causation. The Infant Demiurge looked to her dreams and looked to Void, and began to ponder.

Thus Demiurge spent ten thousand kalpas erecting a palace for his imagination: a perfect labyrinth of inspiration: gardens and artworks and landmarks, all finely carved from the bones of the Void. The Void, uncaring, receded from this point of light. Demiurge grinned the madly satisfied grin of a toddler and called his new palace The Hundred Thousand Heavens. Licking her lips, she lay down to dream.

And found she could not.

Demiurge tossed and turned. Demiurge bit her lip. Demiurge ruefully stared at her ceiling of boundless and impossible beauty with a knowing, guilty frustration. Demiurge kicked the tiniest vase self-consciously, and shattered it. Emboldened, Demiurge kicked and shouted and punched and screeched so loud that even unfeeling Void felt the first feeling of concern. Thus was born EMPATHY.  Void fretted. Void frittered. Newly cognizant Void turned an infinite intelligence to the dilemma and found it wanting. For one kalpa, Demiurge shattered The Hundred Thousand Heavens, kicking down her palace with a bull’s abandon, and Void glumly whirred with ideas.

To dream a new dream, Void concluded, there be must new things. Frantically, she shared this wisdom with The Infant Demiurge,

The Infant Demiurge, eyes wide with wonder, picked a shattered fragment of Heaven, and breathed life into it, and set down her creation: The First Titan.  Demiurge watched with an appraising eye as The First Titan wandered the ruins of Heaven: inspecting a balustrade here; a shattered armoire there, a broken staircase further. Curiously, The First Titan started to build and produce and learn and be. With immense glee, Demiurge leapt across the ruins of Heaven and created a vast legion of Titans, who wandered the ruins of Heaven in an orgy of fecund creation. Demiurge’s eyelids fluttered, and she slept for ten thousand kalpas of blissful dreaming right there on the floor.

When she awoke, Void had receded too far to see, and Demiurge felt a pang of loneliness and panic. All around her were the creations of the Titans: worlds of fire and ice and rock and salt and dreams and terror and amber; and each teemed with the multiplicity of their inhabitants. Demiurge looked on the chaos that had unfolded in the ruins of heaven with a grim determination. Feeling into the void, she erected a new Heaven, with a mighty throne to appraise this confusing multiverse that had grown up like lichen on her perfect creation. As it teemed and roiled and grew, endlessly consuming Void to further its limitless creativity, Demiurge knew she must impose order somehow.

Thus Demiurge spoke the First Law, and its name was DEATH.
The thronging multitude was thus limited, as the older mortals were now age and die. Content, Demiurge nodded to herself.

But the Titans looked up at Demiurge on her mighty throne in her new heaven, and wept.

Demiurge beadily appraised the mortals who now feared the First Law. Eager to avoid DEATH, many turned to theft or murder or savagery and most unbecoming behaviour in the ruins of heaven. Demiurge’s eyes narrowed with purpose, and she spoke the Second Law, which is JUDGEMENT.

She raised up two tribes from the ruins of heaven, and set to them oversee the Laws.

The Titans saw the infinite cruelties of Hell. The Titans saw everywhere the erection of temples; the shackles of priesthood; the tyranny of the soul, and they were greatly angered. They whispered a few syllables of their song, Demiurge’s song, into the ears of ambitious mortals. These mortals, singing with the voice of god, tinkered with the foundations of all the worlds; and goaded each other endlessly to greater sacrilege and blasphemy, as they turned magic – the song of Demiurge – to their own purposes.

Some even looked at Demiurge dreaming on her mighty throne, and conceived of that most sovereign of sins.


Tuesday, 30 May 2017

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a cryptofascist masturbatory homage to Brexit Britain. Here's why.

So last night I had the dubious pleasure of viewing King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which is basically everything about a Guy Ritchie movie (sweary dialogue, montages, rogueish lads) but at some kind of cosplay convention where they wear historical costume derived from almost every historical period imaginable saving the Romano-British one in which the legends of the King Arthur are mostly set. There is even a scene where David Beckham, yes that David Beckham, roars defiance with a CGI-burned face whilst wearing something from a Mordor Primark. Mostly though, it’s a sort of cryptofascist masturbatory homage to Brexit Britain.

What I fixated on, beyond the terrible plotting, over-editing and crap dialogue with all the verisimilitude of a Year 6 School Play, was how bizarre the assumptions the film made about power,  righteousness and leadership were. Whilst the core story of Le Morte de Arthur and Arthurian romance revolve around chivalry and principle and the tension of being both a Christian and a worldy knight, and the contradictory loyalties of feudalism, the fundamental themes of Legend of the Sword are a bizarre stew of prejudices about education, class and masculinity.

The main character (played by a budget Tom Hardy chap with an undercut) is a swaggery, macho male power fantasy – hardly rare as Hen’s teeth in a low-brow action film – who initially is some sort of low-key gangster in ‘Londinium’. Despite the fact he is a violent-to-the-point-of-sociopathic brothel-owner and small time thief, we are supposed to embrace this character as a standard square-jawed hero. The chivalry of Arthur here extends to violent repercussions against Viking Johns who take allowances with ‘his’ womenfolk. Here, masculinity – even heroism – is expressed as the violent defence of women that are fairly explicitly owned and exploited for sexual labour by a swaggering male authority figure. (The only other female in the plot is some kind of witch
). He is contradicted of course with his foil, the usurping Vortigern. Vortigern is soft-spoken, intimidating and aristocratic: the dialogue between him and Arthur impinge that is his very education and social class which cut him off from being authentic in his relationships, or in his drive.  We know Vortigern is evil because he has usurped the natural order by taking his brother’s throne from the ‘born king’ – the conceit of legitimacy by blood being instrumental to all these stories – and because he has sacrificed his children for supernatural powers. Let’s dismiss this as meaningless moustache-twirling which was clearly a plot afterthought or pantomime homage. Whilst Vortigern is tyrannical, it seems to only be in response to wide-scale dissent in support of The Born King, and his reign otherwise seem orderly and successful. Arthur is a tyrant, too, and also solves his problems only with the application of violence. The only difference is their relationship to the women that make up their household: - Vortigern sacrifices his familial bonds for greater power, Arthur sacrifices power in order to protect his intimates. Two roles are juxtaposed: leader as interested in the preservation of the state, or leader as invested in the preservation of his family. Would Arthur be any less murderous and tyrannical should his legitimacy be challenged? From his conduct as brothel-owner, it seems not. The legitimacy of his reign is explicitly based on his use of violence being more effective. There is a scene where he is basking in the adulation of the crown, the camera fixates explicitly on the sword, not the man himself. And yet, his masculinity, swagger and physicality is what is meant to establish this man has a right to rule to the modern cinema-going audience as well. 

The bonds of fellowship which underpin Arthurian romance are also present, in that Arthur is fanatically, stupidly, idiotically loyal to that fat bloke in the yellow coat from Utopia and a group of ethnically diverse cockneys where every corner of Earth, including several thousand miles beyond the greatest extent of the Roman Empire under Trajan, but let’s not go there. This is supposed to the Round Table motif, and that homosocial bonding element is meant to establish Arthur as definitively heroic and relatable. Vortigern possesses no male relationship which is not with an underling or enemy. Despite the Round Table motif from Arthurian romance, there is no equality here, and the others are merely minions of Arthur, who orders them around with the smug self-assuredness of a bullying older brother (again, this man is inexplicably supposed to be the righteous hero of this film). In fact, this routinely impinges his ability to lead. When a comrade has obviously been captured, and the whole party needs to escape, Arthur announces “We’ll wait until first light” – abrogating the responsibility for decision-making and risking everyone’s life to demonstrate the importance of those homosocial bonds.  This laddy, fraternal conceit goes on to the basis of his regime: his coup is followed by the placing of his completely unprepared mates into positions of supreme power and authority. This will be ok, because…

….this film has some weird class politics. There’s this standard ‘you’re only a real person whose experiences matter if they’re authentic – authenticity being defined by being poor’. Now, I don’t normally object to this: it works for tonnes of characters and I’m a commie who grew up on a council estate so it appeals t the chip on my shoulder. This of course makes Arthur innately a great monarch in waiting – the perfect place to learn the ropes of medieval kingship is in petty criminality, apparently. In the picaresque worldview of the films, just like in Lock, Stock, the educated, middle-class or soft are a liability whose conceit makes them incompetent, whereas the rough and tumble characters from the streets are innately super-competent. (The fact Guy Ritchie is a posh southerner and related to aristocracy complicates the psychology of this considerably). This bizarre creation – the lumpenprole king – saunters through a diplomatic meeting with simple assertiveness to make decisive policy. This policy involves a speech about how no-one should fuck with ‘England’ (Where’s that, Arthur? There aren’t any Angles here yet) and reduces decision making to the simple pronouncements of intent. The details of being blockaded by a hostile European power following this decision are not explored, but I do look forward to watching Arthur launch Article 50 and call Merkel a ‘silly mare’ before nutting Jurgen Klopp.  

Sunday, 28 May 2017

That Old Time Religion (Part 1: Movement)

Religion in vanilla D&D is boring as fuck. There’s this big, boring list of Gods (I’m Pelor the Sun-God, I like ‘the Sun’ and grant some fire-related powers and I’m lawful boring) with no interactions. All religions have this generic ‘temple plus one priest in every city’ structure, and all the drama that religion should bring to your game: schisms, crusades, heresy, intolerance, unfailing belief, philosophy , reformation– is just absent.  Even when WOTC writers work to flesh out these religons, they offer meaningless detail in place of drama: the high priests are called such-and-such and they wear robes of blue and all shave their heads and an…

One reason is, I think, that the polytheism of vanilla D&D lacks interactions between the gods. What makes Loki a powerful architype isn’t that he’s Chaotic Evil and that he grants the Trickery domain – it’s the fabric of relationships and stories that define his mythos. Zeus sitting on Olympus being King of the Gods has no story, no conflict – Zeus leafing through an ornithological journal in order to get laid in animal form is interesting, and pushes the story.  If you have a Polytheistic ‘tight’ pantheon, make them have interrelationships of conflict, cuckoldry and conspiracy. Who fucks who? Who tricked who? Who bred a monstrosity that still lurks out there somewhere? Who ventured into the underworld? For every god, a story linking them to another. These can differ geographically or culturally, but they help give a character to these unknowable beings.

To improve this, ensure your religions are in flux. They must change and alter through geography, culture, time and class. The Christianity of a Roman legionary is not the Christianity of a Baptist minister; the Catholicism of rural Spain in the Renaissance is not the Catholicism of Tolkein; the Buddhism of a Sri Lankan farmer differs from that of an American Philosophy professor. Nuances and culture predominate; beliefs fracture; reforms crack up and are carried forward or suppressed. Two fantasy worlds do this extremely well: Dragon Age; Inquisition has huge detail on this, as do the Princes of the Apocalypse books by R Scott Bakker. Contrast to say, the otherwise intricate world of A Song of Ice and Fire where religious belief is a fairly tedious aspect of the world which doesn’t mesh with much else in the world. This ensures the religion is not wall-hangings; it is a sword over the fire: an instrumental part of the world and its evolving plot.

The major homebrew religion of the Company of the Noose/ North Corner campaign has always been the worship of the Iron Tyrant; a Brahma-like super-soulthat encompasses all other gods in the setting. In their doctrine, all gods, archfey and devils are simply aspects or guises of a schitzophrenic godhead.  This bring a nice monotheistic flavour which is lacking in vanilla D&D (and most major world religions are monotheistic for a reason).  As a god, The Iron Tyrant is boring. He’s formless, inert, unimaginable. So the religion itself has to be interesting to compensate.

The flavour is drawn from early Christianity and the millennial feelings around the crusade: to worshipers of the Iron Tyrant, the end of the world is imminent. The cause? Mortal sin, which manifests as monsters and disaster. This puts all their actions on a permanent clock, and makes vigilance, readiness and paranoia the order to the day.  To ensure the religion is in flux and altering, it has a structure. In Damesht, the home continent of the campaign, the organised arm of the faithful, the Order of the Resplendent Star, is organising to tie itself to power. The Dameshti Emperor, long politically castrated by the aristocracy of his realm, is a sympathiser: like Constantine the Great, a single Empire under a single God with a single ruler seems a logical way of ordering the universe, so he is a patron of the faith. But across Damesht (and this was a major plot-point In the first story arc set in the eponymous town of North Corner) the common people are conservative and hostile to this monopolising force and its eschatological fervour.

There are schisms in the Order: a faction believe the Order should proactively police mortal actions (there are men worse than any werewolf or hag) and achieve absolute, totalitarian dominion over the lives of its subjects. Some believe worshipping other gods as aspect is an abomination worthy of execution. Some believe the Order should be paragons of honour and be living examples of a life well lived – others believe their position in opposing the looming eschaton makes morality meaningless and the only recourse should be the sword. These factions vie for power, and the actions of players could easily raise one up over the others, and have had different interactions throughout their careers (they have murdered members of the Order, and they have assisted them in conquering Loquista, as circumstances dictated – they currently seek a working alliance.)

A religion must be instrumental to the story to matter. As myself and Gaz’s campaign have seen a number of characters opt to be worshippers of the Iron Tyrant, I feel that this shows a success in making a faith with some bite.  

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Records, Railroads and Rewards

I find one of the persistent issues that DMs - myself entirely included – find difficult to balance is the relationship between choice and structure. Ideally, you’d deposit your players in a multiverse of endless possibility and they’d gallivant merrily about pursuing their hearts desires. Realistically, you do need some structure to ensure something is happening. I personally as a player find little more frustrating that endless dithering over a quest or environment to undertake or overrun, and as a DM my eyes glaze over entirely.

To solve this I have three maxims:
- There’s adventure everywhere.
- All roads lead to Rome.
- Constraints power creativity.

Like most DMs, I have a ball-park idea of what The Company of the Noose will one day do, but I wouldn’t railroad them into it. But to ensure action actually takes place there needs to be some overview of options. To this end, I regularly update my Quest Journal and endeavour to summarise options for the players to pursue. Constraints power creativity. If they choose to ignore the main quest, fine – that villain advances their quest correspondingly. The world is alive.

if you have a brief look over it, you can see a number of Main Quests, Side Quests and Personal Quests. You’ll also notice that most side-quests or personal-quests are linked explicitly to a Main Quest. If the players pursue Landar Farshield’s personal mission to slay Valakshanya, the Vampire Queen of the Bleeding Mountain, they will also be combatting long-time party foes the Cult of Ouroboros, and will no doubt stumble across clues related to other Cult of the Ouroboros quests, or even ones related to the main quest. This is not the Quantum Ogre – if the players had instead chosen to pursue Crown, Hourglass, Sword and adventured to Zunia they would have found entirely different lead to an entirely different aspect of the ‘main’ quest – potentially related to Pursuing the Metagnosis. The point is that wherever the players go, they find something pertaining to the larger picture: a lead, a rival, an ally, an item an artefact: a feedback loop to where there is more adventure to be had. All roads lead to Rome.

An example of this is when my players, disinterested in their ‘Main’ quest, endeavoured to instead build up the keep they’ve acquired, and strike up an alliance with a Pirate-King (Blind Agni Nine Fingers) of the acquaintance. Spontaneously, they decided to curry favour by setting out to humble one of his rivals, Rasselas.

They set out for the Sea of Desolation, and there I sketch out some made up locations. I’d dimly thought of the Sea of Desolation before, and had a gist (it’s magical so islands move and shift, there are gaps between planes so weird monsters can pass into the world here, and it’s got a Sinbad meets Stranger Tides meets The Scar vibe). One of the places I’ve sketched, The Weeping Isle, I tell them is a cursed island riddled with tombs. That piques their interest, and they presume it would pique that of Rasselas, so they set out. There’s adventure everywhere.

On the island, they uncover and explore a Duergar ruin – twist, it’s a millennia-old ruin only from the future, and the Duergar meet a horrible fate at some unspecified future date. Tom’s character Rongrim, previously uninvolved in the main quests, now has a connection to explore which will eventually lead him to having a connection to the main-main quest, Pursue the Metagnosis. Additionally, the players encounter the remnants left by a former rival and ex-PC on the very same island, and have another feedback loop to combating the Cult of Ouroboros.

The players are choosing their goals, their methods and their priorities, but there’s a reward for each avenue explored, and they’re never not pursuing their main goals. This prevents the strange situation common in PCRPGs like Skyrim or Dragon Age where players cease averting the apocalypse to help a farmer find his lost sheep or look up a companion’s poorly sister: they’re always combating their enemies or growing their organisation’s strength in some appreciable way. Additionally, no one is too bored pursuing that quest that’s the baby of a single player, because ultimately they’re always pursuing their own goals simultaneously.

Additionally,  I’ve found my players love reminiscing about that time they fought on a giant chain hovering over a cavern, or when they burnt a city’s grain supply to wreak economic hell, or when they slew Sheng-Lung, a mighty water-beast in Loquista’s arena. Now, I use milestones for levelling, but that only gives you twenty or so moments per campaign where you can acknowledge a victory or moment of renown.

So as an alternative, and to keep the players mid-level long enough to have a campaign, I’m going to introduce reward feats for completion of those endeavours, either for quest milestones:

Reaper of the Raven Queen
You have vanquished three of the abominations marked by The Chooser of the Slain. Faced with you, even dead hearts shudder with fear.
Once per day, you may make all undead creatures within 15 feet make a CHA check versus fear. The DC is 8 + your level.

Or just moments that inspire bragging rights:

You have slain an apex predator – a beast whose eye had appraised civilisation as a wolf watches sheep. All shall raise a glass to your name.
You have advantage on all rolls to track dragons, or knowledge rolls about dragons. If you are a Ranger, you may treat Dragons as your favoured enemy. You need never pay for a drink again.

Power Behind The Throne
I am altering our deal. Pray I do not alter it further.
You have played kingmaker – there is a crowned head who will always be accommodating to you.

I find these are smaller power-boosts than a level, meaning I don’t have to constantly readjust the scale of my campaign to accommodate players who can now throw around a Circle of Death or turn into an Elemental or whatever, and there’s something massively cool about fucking up an enemy using an ability you won with your previous badassery, and it gets players remembering their party’s shared history or achievement and loss – something key to cohesion.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Session Summary: Battle of the Lonely Tower

Dramatis Personae:
Vaina "Full Disclosure" Moynen, blood-soaked barbarian and chosen of Voidwalker.  (Dave).
Landar Farshield, cloak-and-dagger agent of the Emperor. (Phil).
Kavarus, bardic seeker and part-time T-Rex. (Gaz)
Pheobus Arouk, Warlock of the Radiant Light and Astral Wanderer. (Tom).
Barbara, Barbarian ‘on the bench’.  (Chris).

The session opened at The Lonely Tower, where our party had once crossed swords with the indefatigable Black Annis.  Sejuren had raised his camp there, and planned to use the defensible point to hold off the Dameshti army – to hold like a rock before the wave. The Company of the Noose were given command of a flank, holding the dry ground that emerged from the swamp from a horde of Zunian mercenaries. The Company, preparing for battle, schemed at how best to break Sejuren from within.

To that end, Kavarus, Landar and Vaina inspired the green troops under the command into a reckless, doomed charge into the massed Zunian troops. Struggling through swamp water, the recruits clashed with in an agonised moment, being outmatched and slaughtered.  Surveying the bloodshed for a moment, the Company of the Noose then surged backwards in a bid to end Sejuren on the battlefield. Kavarus used his Hypnotic Pattern to easily bypass the last line of defense, and Sejuren himself, seeing his flank collapse and the Company enter his fortress, leapt to battle. Even Arouk, once vanished, was able to materialise in the light of a place so close to his worshippers, and joined the battle.

Even confounded by the Crown of Ruin, Sejuren and his Cambion bodyguard proved a tremendous challenge, shattering the Company of the Noose in the tower. Barbara,and Kavarus soon fell, leaving Vaina fighting alone. As Domorit rained destructive magic from above, the Company nearly found themselves matched. Sejuren even exploited the weakness of Voidwalker to challenge Vaina to a duel – in the realm of shadow within the cursed sword, the two traded blows whilst the fractured remnants of the Company of the Noose gathered their strength, praying for a horde of Zunian barbarians to overwhelm the keep and save them.

Domorit, seeing the Company’s treachery as dealt with, went outside and used her magics to buoy the Loquistan soldiers. The Cambion bodyguard assailed Pheobus Arouk, who once more stood alone, trusting in his armour and the Radiant Light that suffused all things. As scorching rays of fire burnt his flesh and spears bloodied him, he fell dead. Suffused with the light of the positive plane, he exploded – crushing and scattering his Cambion foes.meanwhile, Landar, cursed with the Slow spell by Domorit, struggled with glacial slowness to rouse his comrades. As their blood poured out with disturbing alacrity, Landar willed his sluggish limbs. After agonising moments which felt like hours, he stabilised and revived his embattled comrades.  As Arouk rallied, Landar and his comrades set upon the blinded, scattered Cambions and put them to the sword.

In Voidwalker, steel met steel as Vaina and Sejuren fought like ghouls over flesh. Blows were exchanged, flesh hewn, bones broken – with all the elegance of a rabid bear the two ‘duelled’. At the end, Sejuren outmatched Vaina, and cut him down. Gloating, he kicked Voidwalker aside and pushed his thumbs deep into Vaina’s eyes, crushing them like grapes. Vaina, still raging, flailed for his dagger and stabbed Sejuren in the throat, tumbling. Pawing at his eyes, he realised it was not just the darkness of the void that robbed him of sight – he was truly, permanently blind. Scrabbling for his sword in an eternal darkness, Vaina wept as his fate. Unaware that above, the shadow watched him with an appraising eye.

In the Prime Material, the Dameshti army assaulted the broken defenders of the tower, and Prince Aurelian heaped praise on Captain Landar and his company of the Noose. As the victory was celebrated, Landar and Kavarus were met by Varro – ‘the Kennelmaster’ – who was master of spies for the Emperor himself. Varro, a Warlock whose left arm has been replaced by some mechanical surrogate, posed to Landar a simple truth: all men are slaves, Landar was simply unfortunate enough to see them. Varro offered to call off The Hound provided Landar completed yet another final mission: to take the Company of the Noose to Zunia and recover the Crown and Sword of the ancient Emperors of Damesht, long stolen. He was also told to advise Aurelian on how to consolidate control of Loquista – which elements of Loquistan society would be preserved, and which purged.

As they return to a city now flying the feathered sword of Damesht rather than the shark of Loquista, the players have a huge set of decisions to make….

Villains Vanquished: 11
Assets Acquired:
Pheobus Arouk, Warlock of the Radiant Light and Astral Wanderer. (Benched player-character.)
Valour-In-Every-Heartbeat-Dwells, a Cambion Paladin of the Order of the Resident Star.
Barbara, a Dwarven barbarian of dubious loyalty.
Agnes, former proprietor of The Mucky Duck Brothel.
Nations Overthrown:

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Session Summary: The Crown of Ruin.

Dramatis Personae:
Vaina "Full Disclosure" Moynen, blood-soaked barbarian and chosen of Voidwalker.  (Dave).
Landar Farshield, cloak-and-dagger agent of the Emperor. (Phil).
Bodhi, Assassin-Priest of Beshaba, Lady of Misfortune. (Chris).
Bartholomew, Hunter for the Raven Queen. (Steve).

Our players cease their questioning of the corpses of Teshei and Four Times Jack, and plot the destruction of Sejuren. To this end, Bodhi has crept into the secret sanctum of the Cult of Beshaba with the Crown of Loquista. With the aid of an assortment of fellow worshippers of the Lady of Misfortune (beggars, pickpockets, swaggering sailors, gamblers and prostitutes who fear misfortune) he cursed the Crown in an elaborate ritual, creating The Crown of Ruin. Holding it delicately in cloth, Bodhi felt the tumult implicit in this gilt-and-gold, and was beset by visions of banners fluttering in the wind and falling into mud; of castles crumbling into the sea, or empires hazarded on the throw of a dice.

That night, The Company of the Noose met with Sejuren, and told him the deed was done. Sejuren was soon acclaimed by his troops as Most Sublime Despot of Loquista, Sejuren I, and began bringing his rule to the city with fire and sword. Granted the Crown of Ruin by the party, Sejuren then stormed the Grand Marshal's Keep and slew Tyruk in cold blood, suffering pyrrhic losses as the curse pulsed along the threads of possibility.  

The next day,  Landar snuck out of the city to meet with Prince Aurelian, commander of the Dameshti army: who furnished him with information: that the twin brother of Sejuren, Valour-In-Every-Hearbeat-Dwells, was a knight of the Order of the Resplendent Star and rode with them. Aurelian bade Landar lure Sejuren out of the city, and passed him a letter from the Swan-Emperor of Damesht himself. Landar proposes to open the West Gate for the Dameshti horse, commanded by Valour, that they might claim the city behind Sejuren's back.

On the swamp-wracked road, Landar read his letter, and saw that it was parchment containing only the footprint of The Hound. Feeling the press of fate like an insect crushed by a thumb against a window, Landar fled to the city.

Whilst Landar treated with emperors and princes, Vaina, Bartholomew and Bodhi hunted a merchant - a partisan of Tyruk's, who they slew in cold blood. Even Vaina Moynen quailed to see the way their new comrade Bartholomew put even the merchant's children to the sword.

The next morning the Company of the Noose awake to a city beset by a myriad misfortunes: milk spoiled, beasts sickened, wine soured, lovers parted, children tripped, vases shattered, eggs rotted; and they knew they sat in the lap of the Crown of Ruin; a terrible artefact of the Queen of Witches, Beshaba.

Landar approached The Despot Sejuren, cradling the dread coronet in his hands,  and appealed to his vainglory and his purpose - he goaded the man king with the possibility of cowardice. Shocked by such an affront, Sejuren demanded Landar supplicate himself in the dirt, and threw at him the head of the last man who had named him coward. Eye to glassy eye with the former Grand Marshal Tyruk, Landar begged mercy. But Sejuren heeded his counsel, and decided to march to face off against the Dameshti army in the field - with the Company of the Noose in his honour-guard.

In his absence, Bodhi schemes to open the gate in the dead-of-night, as battle-horns roar in the distance. With his Black Finger allies: Esmeralda, Esteban and Elspeta. Beset by all sides by Cambions and guards, the Black Fingers are soon vanquished with only Bodhi reaching the gate house alive.. Using his magic, he controls the mind of one guard to hold the door whilst he pulls the portcullis and the West Gate, hearing the screams of his dying friends above even the trumpets of the Dameshti charge. Picking over the carnage left at the gatehouse as battle rages all around, Bodhi saves Elspeta and Esteban.

As night falls at the tower of Black Annis, the assembled armies of the Dameshti Emperor Audenfeyr and the fiendish legions of the Despot Sejuren watch each other over the gloom, like two wolves about a scrap of meat. A nation hanging in the balance, the session draws to a close...

"I am aware of the frailty of man, I think about the power of fortune, and I know that all our actions are at the mercy of a thousand vicissitudes..... prepare for war, for you have found peace intolerable." Scipio Africanus

Assets Acquired:
"The Black Fingers": Esteban and Elspeta.
Villains Vanquished: 7.
The Fallen: Esmerelda of the Black Fingers.
Treasure: 200gp (bounty).
Magic Items: The Crown of Ruin.
New Moral Depths Plumbed: 1

The Crown of Ruin.

Artefact. The once-proud coronet of Loquista now thrums with dread purpose. A band of gold with spires of white platinum.
The wearer of the crown takes disadvantage on all saves, actions, attacks and checks and suffers any misfortune a capricious DM can conjure. The effects of the crown are also felt by any organisation or state which the wearer controls directly.
The Crown can only be willingly removed by the wearer following a Wisdom Check of 22.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Sunday Slush Pile 19.2.17

The Sunday Slush Pile is a roundup of things I’ve listened to, read, watched, scoured the globe for, met eyes with across a crowded room or glimpsed in a darkened alleyway – those things that I think are eminently D&Dable. I’ll share this potent ideas soup with the rest of you every Sunday to give you ideas for settings, encounters and characters. 

Dune (1985)
It's some weird synthesis of acid-trip and utter kitsch, but the kaleidoscopic disaster that unfolds  is weirdly watchable. I've read Dune (1965), and was therefore in the privileged position of translating to my fellow viewers - like a time traveller to an archaeologist - the narrative behind all the spectacle. 
In terms of inspiration this is hearty stuff: David Lynch's aesthetic direction manages to combine a BDSM riff on Nostromo for the Harkonnens with Kaiser Wilhelm meets Flash Gordon for the Padishah Emperor. Its all so rich in implied meanings and bizarre power relationships and a kitchen-sink approach that it is valuable brain-food for any setting. I think the central take-home is that despite the innate silliness of sandworms and spice and space-travel the narrative is po-faced with the power-relationships and character dynamics that stem from it. Be thus in your RPG settings. 

There's also some brilliant (if melodramatic) villainy in the character of Baron Harkonnen. He combines a repulsive, vengeful, grasping body horror with sexual perversion and body horror. If your RPG villains are anything like the Baron, your players will know to hate them. 

Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947 by Christopher Clark. 
This is not an easy read. The tangled history of the Prussian Reich has no room for coffee table books, and almost everyone is called Frederick or William or occasionally, for novelty, Frederick-William.  It tells the story in rough chronological order of Prussia from a backwater Kingdom on the periphery of Europe to the villainy of the Nazi empire. Having loved Christopher Clark's Sleepwalkers, I'm glad he's maintained the humanising microscopic interludes to the vast and soaring epic that is a historical narrative. The cast - which includes luminaries like Frederick the Great and Bismarck alongside some fascinating twenty-page digressions on the politics of grumpy Calvinists at the University of Heidelberg - is rich in human drama interposed with the innate stiffness of the average Prussian.

From a D&D perspective, it is again rich in mind-food for villainy. Clark's descriptions of the Freikorp's hyper-masculine and deliberate cult-like fetishisation of violence is Lawful Evil as fuck. The toxic ideology that willingly embraces devotion to a state or a throne - even an empty one - over all considerations of morality would be a perfect match for an RPG villain. 
Somewhere in the Freikorps is a  Paladin of Vengeance itching to get out. This captures smart, psychopathic, amoral evil like nothing else. 

A Gladiatorial Arena where Humans fought Dinosaurs and Giants.
Creationists, eh? 

Sunday, 5 February 2017

The Sunday Slush Pile (5/2/17)

The Sunday Slush Pile is a roundup of things I’ve listened to, read, watched, scoured the globe for, met eyes with across a crowded room or glimpsed in a darkened alleyway – those things that I think are eminently D&Dable. I’ll share this potent ideas soup with the rest of you every Sunday to give you ideas for settings, encounters and characters.  This week’s theme seems to be history and myth.

TV: The Shannara Chronicles (Netflix)
As there is a dearth of quality on-screen fantasy, I gave it a go. As I feared this is lukewarm fantasy garbage featuring beautiful clean people farting about in generic Tolkienania. Despite being heralded as a Game of Thrones competitor, the characters are mainly useless whimpering Millenials who can’t decide whether they can hang out with each other long enough to save the world. Whenever something needs to happen for the plot a convenient vision from the future occurs to ensure it happens. Dreadful but weirdly watchable.

The world itself does have some interesting things to say about history and myth: it transpires that Generic Tolkeinania is actually the ruins of our civilization, and there’s scenes with nuclear waste and mutations and a cult trying to recreate human society as was using Star Trek as their model. This play on cargo cult thinking would make a great D&Dable as the players would be in on the joke the characters aren’t. I also think subways, nuclear silos and buried shopping malls would make excellent dungeon locations, and aren’t hard to find maps for. As my gameworld has extinct iterations of the Prime Material as an aspect, making one the current world and having the players explore some kind of post-nuclear-war event or see the Statue of Liberty poking out from the desert a la Planet of the Apes seems too good to miss. This peculiar anxiety around nuclear warfare would seem a little dated, but luckily Trump is giving us a nostalgic taste of a ‘Duck and Cover’ reality.

Podcast: The King of Kings (Dan Carlin's Hardcore History).
A gargantuan podcast (totalling some tens of hours), this has been my chief gym and commute listening for the last week. When I lift, I lift to the conquests of Alexander the Great or the intrigues of Persian harems – what could be more motivational? Dan Carlin is conversational and possessed of a child’s enthusiasm for his subject. With my ‘historian’ hat on, I’m always a little concerned by the age of his secondary sources but as a storyteller he is excellent.

There are tonnes of images and moments that are D&D as fuck – it’s often hard to remember this is real. Xenophon, Greek mercenary, camps among the ruins of destroyed Assyrian cities – no local can match the building or knows who made them – and they still stand sentinel to a lost empire. An imperial army with aristocrats from every corner of an Ancient Empire, each with their own eccentricity: peacock feathers, zebra-skin shields, Amazons, Scythians. The idea of statues of gods as living aspects of the gods, and the suitably mercenary way gods can therefore be kidnaped, held hostage, threatened or destroyed. Archaeologist-Kings eager to seek evidence of epic ancestors. All of this would be excellent for your campaign – I have included the god-statue thing already.

Secondly, there’s the fact that Ancient people(s) lived so violently, that their reprisals and struggles were so life-and-death, that we often forget it as modern people, and even our fantasy worlds can often have a sort of Cowboys and Indians vibe. Not here. If you want tutoring in psychopathic violence, listen to Assyria.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Let's Read the 5e Monster Manual: The Ghoul and The Ghast

The Ghoul and The Ghast

combined this entry because the Ghast is basically a pumped up Ghoul. I am a big fan of Ghouls, and they have an exalted pedigree both within and without the game: their origin is among the ancient Persians, who named the flesh-eating Ghoul with a word referencing a demon feared in those first cities of humankind – the points of light in the Near East amidst a vast sea of (subjective) barbarian darkness. Within the game, they date to the very first editions. My first experience of truly fearing an enemy in D&D was when I was around ten or eleven years old and a band of AD&D ghouls swarmed my party in some tight tunnels where we had been commando crawling. The fear of paralysis, of claustrophobia – the dehumanising experience of being dragged away by a predator – this was all primal terror and a gripping episode that informs my DMing decades later.

Let’s dig deeper:

I can’t decide what I think of this. The lithe muscular body and mutated details add some body horror and help differentiate the piece in the oversaturated zombie market. Despite that, I can’t help feel that the long tongue, hooked claws and blue pallor detract from the horror and add a touch of silliness. When describing ghouls, I amp up the body horror: vast, distended, bursting stomach; smashed fragments of jaw-bone retained as rudimentary mouth and a gore-stained torso. This just doesn’t feel adequately scary to me.

Purpose and Tactics:

Both creatures in battle work very similarly, and as your players level up ghouls and ghasts will transition from solo enemies or boss monsters alongside weaker undead to disposable mooks. In both role, their paralysis ability should be disruptive, but the paltry 10 Con saving throw makes it unlikely you will ever inflict serious paralysis or shut down a character. Most likely, the occasional low roll will result in the character losing a turn. To make a Ghoul combat more frightening, I generally cause anyone paralysed to fall prone and I would definitely increase the DC, or make the DC increase as more ghouls attack you to reflect a slow ‘succumbing’. After that, both monsters have a slightly more damaging bite attack to rely on. Personally, I’d have ghasts working alongside other undead strive to paralyse characters for disruption, especially concentrating casters.

The ghast’s advantages are somewhat significant. Turning Resistance is something I really don’t agree with using – how often does your Cleric get to Turn Undead anyway? – but if your campaign is undead-heavy and the Cleric gets a lot of mileage from it, it can stop or arrest the disastrous situation of a ghoul rout which allows the party to pick off combatants one-by-one. Stench is a generic ability, but fitting here, and potentially quite disruptive. In addition to this, a probably irrelevant resistance to Necrotic and a smidgen more damage round out the ghast.

Almost everything in the ghoulish arsenal requires close proximity to their enemies-  such creatures always work best in favourable terrain or an ambush: the obvious pretending-to-be-dead-in-a-graveyard-or-battlefield is a staple ghoul encounter for a reason. The tunnel combat which frightened my prepubescent self is also a great encounter, provided you are suitably cruel and point out that characters struggle to move past each other and cannot swing their greatswords in such a situation. Ghouls are not intelligent though, so allowing players to abuse their insatiable hungers to lure them into ambush themselves can also make for a great encounter.


A lot of this is very specific mythology centred on Doresain which I personally wasn’t interested in. It seemed primarily an attempt to paper over an Elf’s ghoul-touch resistance and not terribly interesting. It’s also somewhat incongruous to me that Orcus still supports Ghouls now that Doresain is best buds with Corellon (how does that work exactly?) but whatever – I make my own fluff.

The traditional mythological ghouls-are-humans-who-committed-the-sin-of-cannibalism is far more interesting, and what I personally run with.

Plot Hooks

On his doomed marched back across the desert, Prince Cymbaises’ men were forced to commit a foul and odious sin: the men drew lots, and the shortest were consumed. At home, defeated, he finds himself craving once more the flesh of his fellow man, and his flesh grows cold. Now, if he were to succumb to the ghoul-curse, that would be one thing – but in every village of his kingdom a decommissioned soldier has gone home to his farmstead with the blackest hunger growing in his stomach…

The fortress of Memmeloren was besieged by many years by the dread armies of Akullekembek. When the gates finally opened, they found the whole fortress was a nest of terrible ghouls. Horrified, Akullekembek fell, leaving behind a rocky maze of ghoul-cursed horror….

Verdict: A hearty feast, but not one that entirely suits my palette.

Alignments and Society.

What does a Chaotic Evil society look like?

It’s a question that gets a lot of mileage in Sisyphean Internet alignment debates -if you chuck a punch of CE Orcs and Goblinoids together, what the hell sort of society do they develop? In a society of individualistic violence, how does anything emerge? There’s an inbuilt assumption to that line of thought, and to human history generally, that we represent the model for Lawful Good and some Other is the stand in for the other alignments. Do a collective of Lawful Good individuals necessarily produce a Lawful Good society? (Hegel, had he lived beside Gygax, or had Gygax got the dice rolling in nineteenth century bourgeois Prussia, would certainly argue for that – Marx or Arendt might disagree…)

 Disclaimer: I am using the D&D by-the-book definitions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ here. Plus don’t construe this as a moral judgement of individuals, or that I am talking societies out of context, or imposing teleogical modern morality. In D&D morality certain things are moral that we may disagree with in the twenty-first century West, such as murdering evil-doers.

For my own game world, I apply a vague alignment to most states, and here’s how I do it:

Lawful states are typified by constitutions, traditions, and formal roles:  Lawful governments govern by, with and under the dictates of law. At their best, they are just, consistent and stable. At their worst they are bureaucratic and conservative. Chaotic societies are individualistic; they prefer the natural assumption of power by charismatic or capable individuals. At their best, they are malleable and flexible. At their worst, they are despotic, unstable and well, chaotic.

Evil societies put no value on (demi)human life and are aggressive and expansionist – a Hobbesean war of all against all is the world they live in, and they will claw any advantage they can. Evil perform no action except through self-interest.

Good societies are altruistic, engaged and their leadership sees rule as a service. They actively suppress injustice and evil and work to better the lives of their subjects for the sake of it. They are generally much more equal.

Some examples:

Lawful EvilLawful Evil societies are not the simply tyrannical states most people envisage – they could be democracies. The important mix is that there is a heavily controlled, defined and stratified society: maybe a caste-system or extensive slavery. Rulers work within the bounds of the law but the law itself is designed to protect their interests. The Confederate South might be an example here of a society that was legalistic and lawful yet those laws protected evil practices, for example slavery and institutionalised racialism. Other Lawful Evil societies might be the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which expanded violently across the Near East, crushing dissent with utter cruelty yet a strict legal code.
Don't fuck with the Assyrians. 

Lawful Good

Lawful Good societies are societies with the same legalistic preponderance, but they work actively to push towards a more equal society for the populace within the bounds of the laws. Lawful Good societies would only take part in Just Wars and place the welfare of their people highly in consideration. The idealised self image of the United State of America would be an example of a Lawful Good society. The actual United States, probably not. Norway or other Western European social democracies would also probably qualify.

Chaotic Evil
Chaotic societies are those with little legal framework to take control of, such as steppe tribes or  societies in a constant state or revolution and flux (such as modern Syria or Afghanistan). A Chaotic Evil society would be one in which rulers tend to rule solely by force and might-makes-right – the subjects have little right to recompense and the personage of the ruler and their ability to exercise force are the source of all power. The Mongols (before Genghis Khan) probably qualify as a Chaotic Evil society due to their incredibly violent punishments and foreign policy, and ready acceptance of slavery, rape and plunder. A more modern and controversial example would be Nazi Germany, whose crimes probably do not need to be listed.

Chaotic Good
Chaotic Good societies also rely on the personal charisma and status of individual(s), but they work towards the betterment of the collective. They would have a limited or non-existent coercive power and would rely extensively on altruism and voluntarism from their citizenry. Examples are hard to find in the ‘Real World’ setting because blood is so often the lubricant of the wheels of history – I’d say no state in the traditional sense really qualifies (perhaps some Native American tribal groups, but that’s probably my romantic Noble Savage bullshit coming into play.) I’d argue for potentially the Zapatistas, Spanish Anarchists or the Indian Independence movement around Gandhi.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Let's Read the 5e Monster Manual - The Empyrean


Behold, the Mary Suest monster you could ever throw into your campaign. A walking (swimming, flying) manifestation of holier-than-thou immortality. The Empyrean is a literal demigod; beautiful, powerful and better than you. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at the Empyrean before – my eye was always drawn to the overweight-bank-manager-meets-Lolth depiction of the Ettercap rather than this blue Abercrombie and Fitch model.

The concept of the god’s mortal descendants is in many cultures, from Hercules to Maui to Vali to Cu Chulain. Let’s see how D&D handles it…

Art It’s a big, buff blue dude with a bizarre stance that doesn’t seem to work right. He’s wearing some sort of demure skirt, a pro-wrestler’s belt and knee-high boots, so the whole image is a bizarre combination of kinky and boring. The Empyrean shares a lot of conceptual and artistic space with the Deva, Planetar and other creatures featured in Monster Manual’s hunky-fireman calendar subsection. It doesn’t really inspire much in the way of excitement or interest in me, I must admit. I’d build his appearance on his progenitor’s, personally.

Purpose and Tactics
Obviously, this is your ultimate big bad, rocking out at CR 23 and with the caveat that should be mess up daddy will simply resurrect him anyway. Ignore the ‘75% chaotic good’ - this incarnation of celestial privilege is obviously far more exciting if he’s rebelling in some way against the parental figure (one of my villains has this exact story). As with all BBEG CR23 badasses in your campaign, your players will never know him as ‘An Empyrean’. They’ll know him as Kelthren, Thrice-Cursed Son of the God of Knowledge who betrayed him to Vecna.

It’s essential that any Empyrean be first and foremost an NPC, with a name, backstory and relationship to their parent. Integral to that will be his relationship to his parent’s domain(s). My villain was a child of a god of seas and storms, and thus can never leave dry land. Perhaps your Empyrean is rebelling against the God of Truth, or Industry, or Wine – and is therefore lying, lazy or teetotal.

As a result of this, I’d chuck out most of the spell list and powers for thematic alternatives, but let’s see how good the RAW Empyrean is in a scrap. As it would ruin a precious, railroading DM’s day if their pet NPC was made to look embarrassed, the Empyrean has Magic Resistance and Legendary Resistance, so you’re never going to take them out of commission that way. Ditto Illusions, as they’re packing Truesight. They can only be harmed by magic weapons, but any player crossing swords with a CR 23 has so many magical weapons they butter their toast with a Holy Avenger.

In terms of Magic, there are some big-hitter evocation spells and some At-Will utility, which can be used to damage the party- Earthquake can be very disruptive and damaging in an urban environment, and Firestorm gives some much-needed AoE. The Empyrean’s attacks are pretty damaging but dropping one of those a turn doesn’t seem like all that much impact in a high-stakes epic-level combat. He has some excellent support options if you’re giving the Empyrean minions (you are at this point throwing the CR budget rules out of the window, no doubt) as Bolster and Trembling Strike can massively boost his side in a battle against the players, and it makes sense that the Empyrean would rule over some minions.

Some aspects are interesting, for example the built-in Pathetic Fallacy, where the weather reflects his mood: excellent fluff and an excuse for you to battle in thunderstorm or hurricane. The idea of their being ‘beautiful, statuesque and self-assured’ doesn’t gel though. For me, the story an Empyrean should tell is almost Oedipal – it’s about the relationship to a father-figure (who could be overbearing and cruel and capricious – they are a god after all) and the pressure to meet familial expectations (when your brother was your age he was worshipped across the world – you’re still living in the basement of Valhalla). If anything, insecurity should define the Empyrean, and lead into their actions.

Plot Hooks
Kuldgirr the Wrathful rules the vast empire of the Kulgur Wastes, and plunders any town that takes his fancy. His father, men say, was the War-God Aegishjamlur himself, and he sees all the world as his dominion…

Gruthfrith’s mother, Hedelleleid, was the Mistress of Songs, the patron god of bards, singers and beautiful things. Gruthfrith’s fingers are a blur; his voice makes a Nightingale weep, and as women lay at his feet and men bury him in gold, a thought grows in his mkind like a cancer. Why is HE not Master of Songs, Patron of Bards, Singer and Beautiful Things…?

Vallnir’s father, Kelum, the Righteous Fire, demands endless self-sacrifice and ceaseless vigilance. As Vallnirr crosses yet another battlefield, and spends another way warring with evil and terror, despair has grown in his heart like rot. Kelum never sees him as worthy. Kelum never values his life. Should he spend his entire life earning the approval of Kelum? Or should he, for once, use his mighty gifts to benefit himself.

Aumvorax once was the most feared pirate of the Dameshti coast. Loved by his father, The King of Storm and Spray, and his Mother, the Queen of Deluge and Deeps, he was master of all seamanship, and his ship, Favoured, grew fat with plunder. However, in one fatal storm Aurumvorax was wrecked, and washed ashore, and found himself screaming at a mother and father whose fickle favour had slipped through his fingers like so much sea-water. Cursing them, he made his Dark Pact and swore an oath to be revenged…

Verdict: Poorly executed, but a great seed for compelling NPCs. 

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Let's Read the 5e Monster Manual - The Dryad


Another creature inspired by Greek myth, the Dryad is a spirit of nymph of a tree. Such a creature can stand in for tree-spirits of many cultures (Kodama, Ghillie Dhu etc) and thus can find a place in almost any campaign. 

The Dryad is one of those funny monsters that I can never really see my party fighting – they’re more often a quest-giver or scenery that a monster. However – there is no Manual of Quest-Givers and Scenery so we must treat her as a monster!


This is an interesting piece and quite singular in the Monster Manual because of its broadly impressionistic style. Almost all monster depictions in the book are quite realistic and detailed whilst this opts for the suggestion of femininity and the suggestion of arborealism. The facial expression is awesomely powerful (a serious condition of Resting Birch Face) and intones in the Dryad artwork a sort of nature-goddess vibe with a powerful sensuality. It is brave and I dig it a lot. 

Purpose and Tactics

You could feasibly use the Dryad as a low-level boss monster, but I wouldn’t advise it. The Dryad is primarily a controller, and with its low CR, works best paired up with a grab-bag of beasts, Fey or elementals. The reason it doesn’t function as a solo threat is the awful damage and hitpoints – even players disrupted by Charm and Entangle will slaughter the Dryad with ease. Despite the inclusion of Shillelagh, I would avoid using the Dryad for damage at all.

In a fight, assume your dryad is supporting a group of beasts (lets say Wolves). She can use Entangle to deny the characters an action throughout the fight. She could dispense healing in the form of Goodberry, but this seems a fairly weak option.  Combining Entangle with her Charm ability to remove foes from the fight would be a strong strategy, especially as Charm does not compete with the concentration needed or Entangle. With clever positioning (aided by Tree Stride, which only counts as movement and no her Standard) you can be a constant disruptive element and expose the party to dangerous isolation, flanking attacks or charmed inactivity. Barkskin will remove your ability to concentrate Entangle, so I would avoid imagining your Dryad can ever successfully tank.

Whilst you have impressive Magical Resistance to protect you from spells (especially Area of Effect) your Dryad will go down quickly to any sustained fire. Most level one characters with any nova ability could feasibly slay the Dryad in a single hit – and this will only be more pronounced as time continues. Use Tree Stride, the range of your magic and the difficult terrain of your forest home to keep you away from direct damage.

Another string to her bow is her use of Stealth and the mighty Pass Without Trace. Whilst I find adjudicating stealth versus the party difficult aside from in an ambush situation, Pass Without Trace makes it extremely likely the Dryad and her allies will get the jump on your players. Pair this with a Bugbear for a pretty terrifying low CR budget encounter!

As a quest-giver, she’s a standard hippy flower-child and will want you to protect her forest. For something a little more edgy, you could borrow themes from the more morally complex world of Princess Mononoke or draw on the idea of a Dryad being cursed to her form – perhaps she is vengeful.


None of this is particularly original (Dryads are sexy woodland ladies who cavort with satyrs and unicorns) but I’m not sure how else one could riff on the forest-guardian concept without changing it too much.  There’s a nascent doomed love-story plot in the fluff if your players wished they were playing Vampire: The Masquerade instead.

Plot Hooks

A trio of Dryads have taken their protection of the forest to absurd degrees: the kill interlopers just for fertiliser and cause the wooden huts of villagers to spout saplings and grow. They intend that their forest absorb the whole region as it did in primordial times…

The Dryad Waiola loved a mortal man once, and was bound to her tree as punishment. This was millennia ago. Could you find his grave, or ancestors, or ashes and bring back some relic of her love that they might be joined?

A logging syndicate has been set up by the local Baron, who desires you broker a peace with the Dryads and build a sustainable policy that allows the villagers to make a living and the forest to prosper in equal amounts…

Fairuza the Scourge is a Dryad scorned by her sisters. She sees the beauty of nature not in the steady growth of millennia but in the sudden upsurge after a forest fire; she sees majesty not in the venerable old grizzly but in the jaws of a young wolf. Can you prevent her violent attempts to make the circle of life turn a little quicker?

Verdict: Solid as an oak, but not particularly exciting. For more edgy forest guardians, check out my blog post.